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It took just over a month for the Taliban to draw a damning indictment from international human rights groups over its systemic dismantling of rights and liberties that the Afghans had gained over the past two decades. In their joint report published on September 21, 2021, Amnesty International (AI), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) have documented the jihadist terror machine’s rampant atrocities and the sweeping “crackdown since their seizure of Kabul little more than five weeks ago”.
Both Afghans and longtime Afghanistan observers never had any illusions about the Taliban being a band of treacherous and vicious thugs and its Emirate 2.0 merely a revival of its Emirate 1.0 that was one of the most ruthless regimes of the 1990s. But timely documentation of the Taliban brutalities by independent rights organisations was imperative, to put on notice, both the jihadist regime, as well as the governments and groups that have insisted on calling it a changed entity.
Despite being much more media-savvy this time around and professing to be reformed, the Taliban has not actually made any tangible effort to be seen as ‘reformed’. On the contrary, after usurping power it has catered to its rank and file that remains ideologically anchored in austere Islamism and its coercive enforcement. In fact, it seems that the jihadist enterprise has been trying to make a statement both at the policy and practice levels that it has ushered in an era of austere Islamist rule.
For days, the Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid and other surrogates parroted that the new government would be a hama-shamool – an all-inclusive one. But the announced interim cabinet and its first expansion showed that it included all men and only the Taliban. And over a dozen of them are designated terrorists or former Guantanamo detainees.
While a few non-Pashtun Taliban have been included in the cabinet, it is heavily packed with Pashtuns, especially those from Pakistan’s most trusted proxy, the Haqqani Network (HQN). The HQN’s current leader and the Taliban’s deputy emir, Sirajuddin Haqqani, became the interior minister and a dozen-odd alumni of Pakistan’s Haqqania Madrassa received assorted other portfolios.
Mullah Ghani Baradar, a relative political pragmatist who has been the political face of the Taliban and its chief negotiator for the past several years, was demoted to deputy prime minister and left Kabul after being roughed up in a palace brawl by the HQN’s Khalil Haqqani and his men. An ill-tempered, religious hardliner Mullah Hassan Akhund was chosen the prime minister, as a compromise. The Taliban’s emir Haibatullah Akhundzada, who has not been seen or heard from in years, was pronounced the Supreme Leader and has ostensibly called for the implementation of sharia.
The messaging is clear: it will be a hardline regime, both ideologically and politically. As the Taliban’s chief political patron, Pakistan is bent on ensuring that the regime remains under its total control. That Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate chief Lt General Faiz Hameed arrived in Kabul for a victory lap, days before the Taliban announced the caretaker setup, merely consolidated the impression.
The Taliban for its part had no qualms celebrating its victory by parading its suicide bombers along with their suicide vests and vehicle-borne explosive devices. The propaganda event boastfully titled Fa’teh Zua’k – the Victorious Force – to glorify suicide bombers in particular, was aired on Afghanistan’s state television. The narrator described the use of suicide attacks and devices as the core skill of the Taliban’s military campaign. The Taliban has banned women presenters from appearing on the same state television, since the day it seized power! It was not a one-off event. The Taliban has put its Badri 313 Brigade or Command – housed in a kindergarten building – in charge of security in Kabul, especially the airport.
The contingent, now equipped with US-made gear and weaponry, is drawn from a pool of suicide bombers, who had been trained for special operations and the so-called complex or spectacular terrorist attacks such as the ones that targeted the US and Indian diplomatic missions in Kabul. The Taliban has deployed two suicide attack units in Badakhshan and Kunduz, ostensibly against the remnants of resistance there. The Badri 313, which has been under the HQN’s wing, gets its name from the seventh-century Battle of Badr, in which 313 Muslim fighters under Prophet Muhammad are said to have defeated a much larger Meccan pagan army. The name is a carry-over from al-Qaeda proper’s military wing, 313 Brigade, which was founded in Camp al-Badr, outside Peshawar, Pakistan.
According to al-Qaeda’s primary sources, the HQN’s founder Jalaluddin Haqqani had collaborated with al-Qaeda’s founders to get military training going for the so-called Afghan Arab jihadist, and had served as one of the earliest hosts to Osama bin Laden. The relationship between the HQN and al-Qaeda remains alive and well. According to the UN reports, Sirajuddin Haqqani remains prominent in al-Qaeda’s senior leadership. Not only did al-Qaeda participate in the Taliban’s August offensive, especially in the country’s north, but also celebrated the victory in a comprehensive statement.
Delusional United States
The US intelligence community has already warned that al-Qaeda fighters are returning to Afghanistan and could threaten mainland US in one-two years. But the Joe Biden administration continued to proclaim through the secretary of state Anthony Blinken that al Qaeda has been severely degraded. Be that as it may, the situation for Afghans is much more dire and urgent. And it was deeply disconcerting to hear Blinken’s testimony to the US Senate and Congress last week.
While lawmaker after lawmaker excoriated Blinken for Biden’s blood-soaked blunder in Afghanistan, he was shockingly obstinate in defending those disastrous policies. Blinken simply could not bring himself to say that the Taliban must be held to account for the atrocities it has committed in just one month of grabbing power, let alone the past two decades. He kept repeating by rote the line that the Biden administration would judge the Taliban by its actions and not its words, as if its most recent brutalities are not actions taking place in the here and now but something ethereal that he can’t fathom. It almost seemed that Blinken was setting the stage for recognising the Taliban government and avoided giving a hard commitment to Congress.
The Biden administration’s tack appears rather straightforward. After having cut and run from Afghanistan, it wants to believe and have the public believe that al Qaeda and its Taliban allies are no longer a threat, and that ISIS-K is the more evil enterprise there and so long as the Emirate 2.0 partners with the US to target the local Da’eshis, it can get a free pass.
Blinken also indicated that while reevaluating the US relationship with Pakistan in the context of the latter’s past behaviour, the Biden administration is looking at what it would need that country to do in the future. In other words, the Biden administration would seek some manner of overflight facility from Pakistan to launch the so-called over-the-horizon counterterrorism (CT) missions into Afghanistan, ostensibly to attack the ISIS-K.
All in all, this game plan has disaster writ large. The parting US shot that pulverised an innocent Afghan family should have been a sentinel event calling for introspection in the Biden administration, but it clearly didn’t. The drone strike that murdered the Afghan family showed the limits of over-the-horizon CT efforts, including reliance on the Taliban for intelligence-sharing and Pakistan for overflight. This literally would mean more misery for the Afghan civilians as well as the US becoming beholden to the Taliban in addition to its patrons in Pakistan.
It is in the context of the Biden administration’s pusillanimous reticence over the Taliban’s atrocities and the Taliban’s patrons going into overdrive to humanise the monster that the AI, FIDH, and OMCT’s joint briefing becomes all the more important. When governments try to shove the Taliban’s heinous acts under the rug of geopolitical expediency, rights defenders have to call the perpetrators out as well as call upon the bystanders to break their criminal silence and do their part. This timely joint briefing chronicles in detail the Taliban repression, reprisal and retributions against the Afghan population in general, and women in particular.
An unmistakable footprint of violence
In a little over a month, the Taliban has crushed dissent, fired upon and then banned protests. It has tortured journalists covering peaceful protests and forced media houses into self-censorship or overt restraint. Attacks on human rights defenders have become a norm. The regime has evicted and displaced civilians from their homesteads. The Taliban has practically banned girls’ education at secondary level and higher, prohibited women’s sports, forbidden female workers from their government jobs, induced women-owned businesses to shut down or female staff to stay off work. The regime has abolished the ministry for women and replaced it with the ministry for promoting virtue and curbing vice, a euphemism for its moral police.
Despite the Taliban’s proclamations about a general amnesty for all, including those associated with the collapsed state, it has targeted and killed former government officials, servicemen and women, and anyone it deemed to be a “collaborator”.
The consolidated report from the international human rights groups goes a long way to highlight the infinite human cost of the new phase in the 40-year-old Afghanistan conflict. It calls upon the Taliban and its regional locutors to abide by their word. The groups call upon the UN and the international community to facilitate and accommodate the Afghan refugees and migrants, especially the women. The report, released incidentally, on the eve of the Taliban asking to address the UN and eying Afghanistan’s seat there, rightly calls for the “international community must not turn a blind eye to the violations being committed by the Taliban. Taking concrete action at the UN Human Rights Council will not only send the message that impunity will not be tolerated but also contribute to preventing violations on a broader scale.”
At a time when the Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid had the audacity to say that his regime would respect human rights only after it is recognised internationally as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, it was important to remind the world of the crass irony in this demand.
In addition to putting the Taliban on the spot by documenting its viciousness, the rights groups’ briefing also shows how tenuous its tyrannical regime is. The Taliban, in all its brutal might and regional backing, is darned scared of the Afghan women coming out to protest its brutal rule. These brave women, out only in dozens not droves, are still doing the unthinkable. They have forced the Taliban regime to show both its true colours and its vile hand.
When an austere, dark and dreary regime is foisted upon a people, the mere acts of smiling, wearing makeup and colourful clothes, and marching out in twos and tens are acts of high resistance. By trying to quell these nascent protests, the Taliban continues to prove the incompatibility of its medieval Islamist creed with both the current Afghan society and its historical values. The Taliban order is unjust and untenable; it could last a while, but its tyranny will not endure.
Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.